Introduction: The Poet Who Contained Multitudes
Born in 1819, hardly 43 years after the United States had proclaimed their independence from Britain, Walt Whitman is considered the most representative poet of the America of the XIX century, an America where the growing States were not only struggling to develop their political entities and institutions, but also a national identity. He was born on Long Island in a deprived family who, due to bad investments had to move to Brooklyn when he was only four. Owing to the financial struggles of his family he had to leave formal schooling at the age of 11, when he sook employment for further income for his household. He spent most of his youth switching jobs: he worked successively as an office boy, a typographer and a journalist and, in the meantime, developed a growing interest for art and literature and began to publish works of his own. As early as 1850, he started working on his masterpiece: the colossal Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems that he would consistently revise and adapt until his death in 1892. As an inspiration for this American epopee, there is a conference given in 1842 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leader of the transcendentalist movement.
In this conference, the American philosopher defined his own account of the poet as “the sayer, the namer” who “represents beauty” and “is a sovereign and stands on the centre” . However, Emerson followed his speech by stating that he had not found such a poet in America yet. America was indeed a nation yet to be sung to, a poem yet to be written and that´s why a profoundly impelled Walt Whitman endeavoured to write Leaves of Grass, the first and utmost American poem, the greatest American song. This work is composed in the form of a chant with a religious-like, realist style that sings to all beings, alive and inert, human and non-human. It portrays the whole sceptre of American society, giving the same value to the artist, the worker, the fisherman and the politician. Thus, the democracy of Leaves of Grass goes beyond politics and enters the domains of the soul. In this masterwork Whitman, who claimed to contain multitudes, exalts contradiction and changes of perspective, he wants to empathise with all men and things. In his attempt, he developed a verse that exalted the power of both mind and body to apprehend the infinite beauty of existence, see through the eyes of all men, and thus, developed some of the main ideas of the emergent philosophy of Transcendentalism.
Context: The New American Poetry and Transcendentalism
The birth of new philosophical schools of thought is a common phenomenon when a new society starts to build its grounds. This need for an intellectual, spiritual breakthrough unfolded, in the case of the United States, as a reaction against the conception of the self upheld by Calvinism. Disapproving of the Calvinist tenet that affirmed inherent depravity and advocating the exercise of reason and virtue as a forthright path towards Heaven, Unitarianism underscored the major importance of reason in interpreting the sacred scriptures. Transcendentalism, which was not a rejection of Unitarianism but a natural consequence of its mindset, fostered freedom of conscience and treated religious reformation as a continuing process committed by the self. The main difference between Unitarianism and Transcendentalism is the fact that the latter aimed for a different approach to knowledge, less mild and sober, and emphasised the search of truth and wisdom through a non-rational, intuitive search. This way, life is seen as the laboratory of both reason and the senses which, through their perceptions and ideas guide us toward self-discovery.
Yet, this exploration of the self was not only concerned with the recollection of our past and the experience of our present, but also with holistically considering history as an evolutionary process toward the revelation of some order of truth. The new American poets used this concept to remodel the Unitarian mindset through their own looking glass. As a matter of fact, it was by the publishing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge´s Aids to Reflection that transcendentalism was able to gain adherents among the Unitarian young Boston liberals, who were beginning to disallow the judgements of the pervasive Lockean epistemology. By the same token, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most preeminent heralds of transcendentalism defined the mind-process of the poet as a metaphor to the ever-productive character of the individual who, changed in soul and body runs the gamut of history though reincarnation. In this fashion, Emerson envisions history as a process of variations on an original theme. He asserts that the artist is a mere translator of a pre-existent, perfect poem, who by his translation, can do nothing but miswrite the poem and join in its process of creation. Thus, reality and art are portrayed as ever-evolving creative enterprises in which we have all unwittingly embarked.
Expectedly, this philosophical stream arose in a country who was in the process of laying her very foundations and discovering the nature of American nationhood. On that account, America and her democracy were regarded as a clear example of how the flux of history results in the refinement of not only the intellect, but also of nations. By affirming the multiple and contradictory nature of the soul and portraying all men and women of any social class as equal, Walt Whitman would bring transcendentalism to bear in his attempt to adapt the new-born American democracy to spirituality.
Philosophical Grounds in Whitman´s Poetry
Platonism and Metempsychosis
One of the many characteristics that infuse Whitmanesque poetry with the philosophical ideas of Transcendentalism is its use of the Platonic account that there is a “ladder of ascent” that guides us toward an ultimate truth (in the case of Plato that truth is comprised by the heavenly “world of ideas”, a haven where we are to be liberated from the toil and deceit of the material world, while in the works of Emerson the truth lies in the having experimented- that is both through reason and the senses, both through soul and matter- all paths of being). In this sense Whitman´s poetry lies closer to the notion of Emersonian thought, as they both extol the self as an instrument for apprehending both worldly and transcendent existence. Nevertheless, the role of the body appears more stressed in the case of the Long Island poet. In the eyes of Whitman, the body is not only a means, but an end; worldly existence is not only a path to a distant world of knowledge, but the world of knowledge itself, awe-inspiring and yet to be discovered. An example of this childlike perplexity is Whitman´s “Song of Myself” in which he celebrates the unity of his self with nature.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy .
As we can see in this poem, Whitman is chanting to his ability to perceive, his account of knowledge is equivalent to experience, as opposed to Plato´s belief that the material world is a compendium of blurry material imitations of real distinct ideas. But on no account should Whitman´s sensualistic interpretation of the universe be considered as a disengagement from Platonism. By putting forward reincarnation as a cycle that merges and mingles all matter in a way that every atom which now belongs to us once belonged to someone or something else, Whitman adapts Greek metempsychosis, the transmigration process though which, as Diotima tells Socrates in Plato´s Symposium “He who has been instructed [ . . . ] in the things of love [ . . . ] has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession.” That succession is the order of evolution, from the smallest, simplest being, toward an immanent soul. As we can also see in both Plato´s Symposium and Whitman´s “Song of Myself”, love is portrayed as the driving thrust that leads the soul toward its amelioration which, not surprisingly, resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson´s essay “Love”, in which the writer, while clearly abiding by the platonic conception of the “ladder of ascent”, sees the divine and the earthly together, intimately intertwined.
And, beholding in many souls the traits of divine beauty, and separating in each soul that which is divine from the taint which it has contracted in the world, the lover ascends to the highest beauty, to the love and knowledge of the Divinity, by steps on this ladder of created souls.
By comparing the fragments above, we can affirm that Whitman inherited several ideas which, though sifted through the ideological filter of Transcendentalism, come directly from classical Greek philosophy.
Hegel and German Idealism
As seen in one of Whitman´s poems, “Song of the Universal”, Whitman was also acquainted with German philosophy, especially with Georg Wilhelm Hegel´s Dialectics. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “Dialectics” is “a term used to describe a method of philosophical argument that involves some sort of contradictory process between opposing sides”. Specifically, Hegel´s Dialectics, is based upon the logical method of creating a series of opposed concepts (the so-called thesis and antithesis), which come together to form a synthesis (an evolved amalgam of the preceding concepts), which becomes thereafter a new thesis and thus successively in a circular process that ends when the series reaches its telos (that is, melding with the universal essence, the Neoplatonic One). Similarly, in Whitman´s “Song of the Universal”, the American writer suggests that the universe evolves toward a universal ideal.
In spiral roads, by long detours,
(As a much-tacking ship upon the sea,)
For it, the partial to the permanent flowing,
For it, the Real to the Ideal tends.
In this fragment, we see a metaphor in which a lost, experimenting and roaming reality is embodied in the shape of a boat that unknowingly and “by long detours” tends to a distant ideal. It is commonly thought that Whitman´s engagement with the philosophy of Hegel can be traced back to the period between 1868 and 1871, when he was working on his Democratic Vistas, a political essay in which Whitman portrays American democracy as a renovated political system, as the culmination of a process of self-overcoming. In order to do so, he uses Hegelian ideas to illustrate the United States´ process of creation: the Spirit, which appears embodied by American politics has had to go through the whole process of dialectical creation and annihilation to finally arise from the ashes of its predecessor (European old-worldly imperialism) in its best, most beautiful form (democracy). Conversely, in another of Whitman´s most significative works, “Song of Myself” we see Hegelian ethics applied to the self. In this poem, even if only superficially, Whitman hints at an idea of a democratic soul, which through a process of sympathising with all men and women, becomes open to all thoughts and perspectives.
“Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean, /Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest. ”
Contradictory as it might seem, in the poetics of Leaves of Grass, Whitman both hints at a latent national identity common to all Americans while at the same time he exalts the free, knowledge-thirsty nature of the self, which, due to a constant historical evolution becomes, in turn contradictory, and cannot be summarized by a simple array of adjectives, as exemplified by the poem below:
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Emerson, the Denied Master
As stated, Transcendentalism and, specifically Ralph Waldo Emerson´s writings seem to have had major influence on Whitmanesque poetics. Not only has this been proved by thorough studies on the imagery and philosophical underpinnings of Walt Whitman, but it was also stated by himself. In Reminiscences of Walt Whitman, an article by John Townsend Trowbridge on his relationship with the writer, he recalls Whitman saying “’I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil’ Townsend then comments that : ‘”He freely admitted he could never have written his poems if he had not first ‘come to himself,’ and that Emerson helped him to ‘find himself”. We can argue, therefore, that at least at the beginning of his career as a poet, Whitman considered Emerson as the fountain-spring of his inspiration, in other words, a master. It seems natural, therefore, that as soon as Whitman finished the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he searched for Emerson´s imprimatur. Whitman sent Emerson a copy of his book, to which Emerson answered: ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R W Emerson.’ Though their relationship began as one of mutual respect, when the following- more overtly sexual- editions of Leaves of Grass started to go through press, the puritanism of New England Transcendentalists proved to be a hindrance for Emerson´s understanding of Whitman´s work. The American philosopher even advocated for some of its passages being cut out, but Whitman obdurately wanted to keep these passages which, in turn, made their friendship come to a halt. This was reflected by the progressive attempts by which Whitman tried to minimize and even deny Emerson´s influence, such as these reported by John Burroughs in his book Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person: ‘[U]p to the time he published the quarto edition [of 1855] . . . [he] had never read the Essays or Poems of Mr. Emerson at all. This is positively true’ . Therefore, we can argue that despite the extensive resemblances between Whitman´s thought and that of the transcendentalists, Whitman was seeking for another approach to spiritual knowledge, one which gave a higher importance to bodily experience. This departure from Transcendentalism- which scholars refer to as Spiritual materialism” is exemplified by his use of the word body in much of his poems, which is frequently surrounded by a halo of sanctity similar to that attributed to the soul in the works of other writers. Soul and body are words that appear together because to Whitman´s eyes, these were two intimately intertwined concepts. As he claims in his “Song of Myself” ‘I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul’. In Whitman we find, therefore, spiritualism and materialism merged together; a poetics that deifies the mercies of sex and the appetites -that is, the sensual capacities of the individual to meld with others- as well as the abilities of the soul to sympathise and comprehend the other.
When Walt Whitman embarked on the journey of writing Leaves of Grass, he unknowingly belonged to a religion with no priests, sacred books or cathedrals. Nonetheless, he strongly felt the calling, which, uttered by Ralph Waldo Emerson impelled him to become the bard of a new faith, whose cathedrals would the world and the body, whose priests would all individuals, whose Messiah would become Walt Whitman himself. He expressed all these beliefs in his writings, the sacred scriptures that constituted a reinterpretation European philosophy through the eyes of the new, buoyant American continent. By his reading of both the Transcendentalists and the classics, he redefined Greek metempsychosis, that “ladder of ascent” that makes us travel around all souls and beings in order to reach knowledge and transcendence.
To do so, he overcame the excessive weight the Transcendentalists still gave to reason- certainly due to the latent influence of Unitarianism and puritanism- and shamelessly canonised the senses, the body and sex as the main agents that enable us to connect with others and the world around us. In addition to that, his thorough studies on German idealism- specifically that of Hegel gave momentum to his reinterpretation of history in such a way that he was able to devise a democratic conception of society and the self and portray America as a phoenix-like entity, emerged from a dialectic process. To conclude, though many of these influences were inherited due to his reading of transcendentalist writers- such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Whitman more than once called “master”- Whitmanesque poetry- and philosophy, if I may say so- became gradually distant to their father-transcendentalists to such an extent that Whitman merged the heavenly and the bodily in what would later be called “spiritual materialism”.